For a little while I lived in Waco, Texas, and for me it was a time of unrelenting loneliness. And I allowed my experiences to insinuate their way into my memory of the place, like twines of ivy climbing into a patch of foliage, and I was disaffected. After I left, for a while I would not think about Waco apart from the saturating influence of my grievances.
During that time I might have written something very similar to this piece by Ryan Thomas Neace about Lynchburg, Virginia, where I live now. I am glad I did not, because my attitudes toward Waco changed; they changed in time–not because of time, but because I came to see and understand the injustice of my imputations. I do not think of Waco in a fond way, but nor do I resent it as I once did. In the same way that Romantic writers of the 19th century were prone to anthropomorphizing nature, imputing human feelings and attributes to animals and environments, so too is it possible to treat the past this way, seeking consolation by weaponizing one’s memory against the thrall of personal disappointments.
There is visceral pleasure and exhilaration in declaiming one’s former boss or lover or place of residence on the basis of a bad experience. But when that satisfaction wastes away, as it must, and leaves a toxic residue of self-importance, where does one then turn for consolation? The annals of history and human experience provide an overwhelming testament to the futility of it all. The armaments of consolation are never broached from a position of personal strength. Had I ever articulated my judgments on Waco I could have proved only my own weakness, and would have only insulted the people whose lives and commitments and affections were bound up there, entwined in ways beyond me.
When the Lord stamps His imprimatur on vengeance, claiming it as His alone, He does so for human benefit. Look past sensationalized sorts of murderous vengeance that dominate novels and films and newspapers; under the umbrella of the Lord’s vengeance also fall the everyday retributions that are so tempting and commonplace because they are more innocent than murder and thus may be justified easily. But grudges, inducements to guilt, passive-aggressive reprisals: these are little vengeances, and they too belong to the Lord. Indeed, thoughts of familiar vengeance may prove harder to relinquish than the sensational variety, since they can be fed upon and ingested, day after day, in safe little morsels of resentment.
Often, the first refuge of the dispossessed and the relationally expatriate is to draw morsels of vengeance from one’s dispossessors, from the unrequiting objects of one’s expectations. Such recourse, as wisdom, history, and experience teach, can only end in futility. Vengeance, like the (apparent) myth about celery, burns more calories than it supplies. Vengeance satiates but never satisfies, and its relief for the dispossessed is but temporary, ultimately only exacerbating the dislocation of self it is designed to mend. The sooner one puts away these little vengeances, the better.
A frequent consolation of the aged and the aging, understandably feeling dispossessed by time and life, is to condemn what comes after them; but sometimes there are alternative stances. Consider a remark in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography about Fred Perry, the British tennis player and commentator:
“He could be severe about the modern game, and once pointed out that in spite of the improvements in fitness and technique, the time allowed between each point and for changing ends had become so extended that the famous Borg–McEnroe final of 1980, which took four and a half hours, would have lasted barely one and three-quarter hours in his day. But he recognized the virtues of the modern game and never complained that everything was better when he played.”
Whenever I encounter displays and appreciations of such endearing generosity, whether towards the places and people that wronged us or towards the ones that forget us, I am humbled and gladdened. I like to store them up in my memory, so that I may learn to live them.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
[John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter”]
I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a C.E.O. whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, and Brandeis’s right to rescind degrees as it sees fit, and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, and a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.
But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.
And with the pretense, increasingly, comes a dismissive attitude toward those institutions — mostly religious — that do acknowledge their own dogmas and commitments, and ask for the freedom to embody them and live them out.
It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.
I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.”